By PAUL J. SPETRINI
PROVIDENCE—Sharon Gamba paced around the State Board of Elections office Monday afternoon with pen and paper in hand and a look of determination on her face.
Staring at the five electronic ballot machines in a dimly-lit basement area where all recounts are completed, Gamba watched as vote after vote was reentered. Her hope was, simply, that at least 19 of the 1,168 ballots turned the District 32 Republican primary race against incumbent Larry Ehrhardt back in her favor.
When they didn’t, she walked over to her opponent, quietly congratulated him on his “well deserved win” and, just like that, a summer-long battle between political opponents on opposite ends of the experience spectrum was over.
With a board-certified recount reaffirming last week’s results, Ehrhardt officially clinched the Republican primary race Monday, winning 593-575 thanks to an overwhelming majority in mail-in ballots that swung a close race from a 27-vote victory for Gamba at the Election Day polls to an 18-vote win for the five-time state representative.
And with the primary officially behind him, Ehrhardt relished the opportunity to begin looking ahead to his November general election race against Democratic candidate Robert Craven.
“I was pleased to see the results,” Ehrhardt said. “I’m glad it’s over and I’m ready to move on. While it was unfortunate to have to spend my summer in a primary what it meant was we’re ready to go for the main election. The signs are all out, we’ve got campaign materials developed and we’re ready to roll.”
For Gamba, Monday’s recount was an attempt to both double-check the results in one of the closest primaries in the state—Gamba’s attorney questioned whether some voters serving in the military oversees had had their mail-in ballots properly counted—and a chance for the political newcomer to see how the election process works up close and personal.
Following her defeat, Gamba said she had no regrets about the race or the way it turned out.
“I feel great,” she said. “I’m not disappointed at all. We came out and worked it really hard. Larry won fair and square by mail-in ballots, I won at the polls so I’m totally comfortable with the people that I got to meet who came out and voted for me. He’s done this six times. Seven weeks ago, I was an unknown so I’m really comfortable coming this close.”
Ehrhardt said he never expected such a tight race.
“I was surprised at how close the numbers turned out,” he said. “I’ve always been a poor predictor of election results but, frankly, I was surprised to see it so close and so consequently I had not been suffering from any apprehension going into the election night. I’d known I’d done my homework, I’d known I’d done a good campaign and so I was actually fairly comfortable that I was going to win.”
While there’s no clear way to determine why the race was so competitive, Gamba feels her personality and the public’s desire to see a fresh face in state government played a large role in keeping the margin of victory small.
“When people meet me, I think they genuinely like me and I think they’re tired of someone whose been in that many times,” she said. “I think I’m accessible and I’m a go-getter with a plan and I’m like a bull and people know that I care.”
Even so, the first-time candidate was surprised at how well she performed once the final results were in.
“I didn’t think it would come down to such a close margin at all,” she said. “I had no idea what I was going to do or how I was going to do it. I think that a lot of people will go out and they will try this and there will be a really big margin but Larry won by (18) votes. He is a four-year incumbent. I think somebody like me, coming on the scene seven-and-a-half weeks ago, I think it was pretty good.”
The bigger question coming out of the District 32 race is whether or not the close primary will leave the Republican voting base in North Kingstown fractured or if Gamba’s supporters ultimately side with Ehrhardt come November.
Ehrhardt says he doesn’t see it being much of an issue.
“It’s always something you’re going to have some concern about,” he said. “But I think the important thing to look at there was that this was a very small subset of the voters. What did we have? Eleven hundred people turned out for the Republican primary. The general election, if it’s anything like previous elections, we’ll be look at probably close to 6,000-7,000. It’s a completely different event.”
Having Gamba endorse Ehrhardt may help the incumbent. In a letter to the editor to the Standard-Times this week, Gamba thanked her supporters and asked them to “vote in the November election, support Larry and demand that he work tirelessly to prevent the further decline of Rhode Island.”
She was, however, quick to hint at a possible future run down the line.
“Because I’m a Republican, I would ask my fellow Republicans to support Lawrence Ehrhardt … but watch out next time,” she said.